DAYTON, Ohio – For Shamorie Ponds, it was Kris Jenkins’ buzzer beater to give Villanova the 2016 national championship. For Justin Simon, it was the breathless West Regional final between UConn and Arizona as Kemba Walker was propelling the Huskies to the 2011 title. For Marvin Clark II, it was annually viewing the players and moments immortalized in "One Shining Moment."
Each of the St. John’s players has a story to tell about how he fell in love with the NCAA Tournament and began to dream of playing in it. Those dreams become reality Wednesday night when the Red Storm (21-12) face Arizona State (22-12) in the First Four at University of Dayton Arena. St. John's hopes to "survive and advance'’ to become the West Regional No. 11 seed and face No. 6 Buffalo on Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Recalling the Jenkins shot, Ponds said, “I mean, I feel, why would I not want to be there?”
St. John’s is back in the tournament for the first time since 2015 and seeking its first win since 2000 after it received the final at-large berth in the field of 68. With that as the backdrop, the Storm isn’t bashful about the desire to make their presence felt.
“Even though we're the last team, we're in,” Clark said. “So we don't want to just be here and be happy to be where we're at right now. We are really focused and locked in on making a run. And we feel we have the talent to make a run.”
Ponds said Sunday that having everyone know St. John’s got the final spot “is fuel to the fire.”
The Storm has some familiarity with Arizona State. They played the Sun Devils last season in Los Angeles and lost, 82-70, after staging a comeback from 18 down to get within 71-70.
That ASU team reached the 2018 First Four and fell to Syracuse, and so many of the Sun Devils have experience with what is coming. But several St. John’s players who transferred in have NCAA Tournament experience. Clark played in the Big Dance twice – including a Final Four – at Michigan State. Mustapha Heron was there last season with Auburn. Sedee Keita was on South Carolina’s 2017 Final Four team. Simon was on the Arizona bench in the 2016 tourney.
“That experience helps us a ton,” Clark said. “Every game it's a whole new season, but every game it's your last game. And you really should be overcome with energy.”
Coach Chris Mullin is in the NCAAs for the first time since he and coach Lou Carnesecca led St. John’s to the 1985 Final Four. Mullin said they visited Friday but talked little basketball. “There's not a whole lot that he needs to tell me because I experienced a lot with him [and] I watched everything he did.”
St. John’s could be in a tough matchup. Arizona State’s only losses since mid-February were to Pac-12 champ Oregon. It rebounds well – led by Zylan Cheatham’s 10.4 per game – which was a problem for the Storm against Providence and Xavier. But the Sun Devils play the fast pace the Storm like.
ASU coach Bobby Hurley cited St. John’s toughness and scrappy play as assets, but said the key for the Sun Devils is staying below the 13.6 turnovers they average. “It's something that we've been talking about because of how good St. John's could be in the open court if you turn it over,” he said.
The Storm have been maddeningly inconsistent, and now they get one more chance to show they are better than they have performed. The players’ driving force will be, as Simon said, “I don't think we're ready for our season to be over yet.”